ELIZABETH JOHN and ANIZA DAMIS speak to cartoonist and Malaysian cultural icon Lat (Datuk Mohd Noor Khalid) about being Malaysian and being friends
Q: Why is Town Boy such an enduring favourite with Malaysians?
Q: Why is Town Boy such an enduring favourite with Malaysians?
A: I think many people look at Town Boy as something that promotes unity, friendship and encourages people to understand others' cultures. In this case, it was music that brought children together. But when I did that book, my life as a young adult was similar: playing music in my spare time, with friends who had the time to spare.
We became good friends because of music.Q: So, it's a story about people coming together?
A: Yes. When you are a teenager, that's the time when you have this urge to meet others and learn about other teenagers' cultures and traditions.
Even the ways of eating are different. These were things nobody told you about. It's just that we were eager to know each other.
So, it is all about life, actually. You cannot learn all this in one day. You have to live through it.
If you want to play music or get involved in art activities, you have to have a gathering. And from this gathering, you don't gain anything except being with the group; you're going to meet their family, and you're going to belong. I made friends by exchanging things.
One day I went home and shocked my mother.
I turned up with long protruding teeth because I had exchanged a comic or something for a retainer.
And you have friends coming to your house because of these things. Nobody tells you to do these things (go to friends' houses to play).
Q: What do you tell your children about making friends?
A: I encourage them to meet their school friends outside of school and have activities outside school.
Parents should encourage their children to mix. This will be a big help when the children grow up. It gives them perspective.
Of course, if we build a wall around ourselves, and just live among our clan, then we will never understand how other people live and think, and we would not have a pleasant life.
Q: The society and characters in your books are so multi-cultural. Was that reflective of your world?
A: When I started drawing for the New Straits Times in 1974, I was given the top editorial page. Back then, I had nothing to compare myself with because only Malay magazines had cartoons and they were only read by Malays.
Since I was drawing for the New Straits Times, I had to make sure that everybody was included, as in the crowds that I drew.
There's always one Bhai (Punjabi) there.
So, people asked me" "Why you always have Bhai?"
I was a bit surprised. Why would they ask that? Because when we were in school, we mixed with all sorts of ethnic groups -- Eurasians, Chinese, Indians, Sikhs, Orang Asli -- so, we knew all these races.
But this was the most popular question. Wherever I went, they'd always asked that.
I had many Sikh teachers. In primary school it was Mr Bhagwan Singh, the headmaster. Then there was also Mr Tagar Singh, who was the principal of Anderson School.
So, if people start saying, "Is this Mr So-and-so?", it can be any of them.
There was a mould. If you're Chinese, the best way for me is to focus on the dress, and draw you in a cheongsam, for instance. If I draw somebody in a cheongsam and the face doesn't look very Chinese, then it doesn't fit.
But this isn't stereotyping. Stereotyping is when you consider the whole group as having the same characteristics, especially mental abilities. That's what we shouldn't do. We shouldn't consider this group as fast learners, and another group as slow learners.
If you get to know people individually, you'll find that all these people are unique. That's why, when I do stories, I draw individuals. Whenever you feature an ethnic group or individuals of different ethnic origin, you must have a reason for it.
Not just because you want to do a Chinese thing or a Malay thing.
Q: Is that sense of wanting to know still there? Are Ma-laysians still wanting to learn about each other?
A: They should.
Young adults in Malaysia should know their surroundings. What is the fasting month about? Many people know, because they have learnt about it during their teen-age years.
So, they know not to invite Muslims for functions, especially in the evenings. It was the Hungry Ghost festival recently; you should know about it.
If you pass by a Hindu temple, ask about it. The more you understand, the more you will know about other people.
One of the things that makes me happy is the National Service, which encourages teenagers to be closer. I've seen some good results with the children of my friends, from different cultural backgrounds. They suddenly become closer and continue friendships they make there. It's a good sign. And friendships cannot be forced. It has to happen out of common interests, gatherings and hobbies.
It's too bad, though, that this is something that has to be organised. We have to arrange for our young people to meet.
Q: Do you find you have to be more careful about your drawings these days? Are people more sensitive about things?
A: Age teaches you how to go about things, how to handle the world and how to read it properly.
In drawings, you can present things the way you really want it, in such a way where it's positive.
You don't want to make people angry. You can provoke anger easily. All you have to do is pick one race, one profession or one gender, and people will get angry.
When I was a young man, many letters came to me at the NST. Some of them were from women, asking: "Why are we so fat?"
I think I made the women bigger than men because I wanted the women to win.
So, the husband who wants to secretly take a second wife and tries to get his first wife's thumbprint -- he's going to get it from the wife.
Q: Why is it that you can stereotype in cartoons and people don't get angry? Like with a good/naughty boy look?
A: First of all, the good boy/naughty boy look is to make it easy for the reader. Because you only have a few seconds to read the comic.And, it depends on how you do the story. The good boy with the centre parting, you make him a softy, but how do you do the story? If you make him a loser, then you (are wrong).
But, if you make him a winner, you're not doing an injustice.
It all depends on what your intention is, at the end of it. I don't ridicule people.
Q: You've also had to handle the issue of differences in your drawings. How have you done that?A: I had close Chinese friends in Ipoh.
But your mother says: "When you go to the house, don't eat the food there because you don't know whether it's halal."
That kind of warning does come. You have to face that fact that that happens. So, you will then realise that there are differences.
But the most important thing is the goal: what is the main purpose of the visit? What is more important: the friendship or the food?
You will eventually end up having strong friendships, friends from all ethnic groups, from all walks of life.
And you will feel the unity.
Q: Have Malaysians lost the ability to laugh at themselves or to not take differences seriously?
A: In your effort to fit in, you do laugh at that. All of us try.
But nobody can tell us: "You must not to mix with other people."
Who can say that?
We should go and mix. The more you know, the better."Mix" means really mix, as friends. Not just because two races meet and one pays the other for a service.
"You know any Chinese?" "Yes, there's one coming to my house everyday selling fish."
But you pay him. That doesn't count.
Or a Malay songkok maker who says: "Why should I know any Chinese? They don't make songkok." Let alone the bak kut teh seller.
Q: The troubles that we've been seeing over the past week seem to be over the issue of race. When you look at that, does that reflect your world? What kind of reading do you get from that?A: I've been around a bit.
You think the people in the 1960s were really happy go lucky? No. It may have been called "The Swinging Sixties", but a lot of our soldiers and police were killed and attacked. A lot of children lost their fathers, and women lost their husbands.
It was all over the news. It wasn't a really fantastic time, except maybe for the P. Ramlee songs and movies.
But in reality, the headlines were, as late as the 1970s, about our field force patrol being ambushed, shootings in Ampang, our soldiers walking into booby-traps and the National Monument being blown up.
If you were in KL at the time, you would have said: "Is the world coming to an end?"
So, doubts are there all the time.As a person who's lived quite a while, I think I'm entitled to say this. There are ups and downs, right? Like the P. Ramlee song:
Dunia ibaratnya roda
naik turun tiada hentinya
sama juga hidupnya manusia
ada yang riang, dan ada yang duka.
(The world is like a wheel / endlessly turning up and down / the same with the lives of humans / some are happy, and some are sad).
When things change, we have to accept the fact.
Q: So when people get upset and they feel that we are regressing or we are reaching a point of no return, what do you think?
A: The world doesn't just revolve around our small area. Whoever you are, no matter how successful or down trodden, you have to go home and feed your family.
Three meals a day. That's a basic thing for the common worker and the multi-millionaire.
Somebody on TV, some prominent individual, said that we mustn't overreact. Relax a bit. I think that's important. Overreaction is only for sitcoms.
Q: When you draw editorial cartoons, do you feel the need to tweak things?
A: Yes, I do.There is that thing that you try to calm things down with harmless humour on that subject itself. But it is light and it doesn't penetrate.
It's another way of saying, "Why don't we divert (attention) somewhere else instead of concentrating on this?"
While people are facing high fuel prices, you do simple humour about how you handle things. Don't be too stuffed up about it.
Sometimes, if there is something very big happening, my cartoon is about crossing the road or something. That's another way of changing the subject.
We can also remind people that they have to look back at what happened today as something that we go through and there must be a positive side to it.
Q: How is it that when everyone else is getting more and more upset, you still see the lighter side of things?
A: Because it's the same story. I've been around in the 1950s and '60s, '70s and there were things happening then, but we overcame it.
Those people who were so angry then are no longer around today.
Those people who seemed to be underdogs, don't seem like underdogs any more.
So what is there? Why should we worry? Don't worry too much.
Q: Did you ever think that your books would become the most chosen souvenir of Malaysians who want to explain Malaysia to foreigners?
A: I feel sorry for them, actually. There must be some better things for them to take, but I have heard this a lot.
The storybooks like Town Boy, where children play cong-kak, tag or hide-and-seek, people in Japan and Italy also understand them.
Q: Was that what you intended when you put the pictures and stories down in those books?
A: The intention at that time was friendship. Because in the beginning, that's what I showed, all these children who were friends.
Q: So what makes it Malaysian is friendships?
A: Yes, friendships. Because the friends you meet in school last till today.
I'm sure you have them, and in later years also you're going to remain friends.
(NST 14 september 2008)